author – activist – faculty – mom
So a school in Ohio got in trouble for attempting to ban afro puffs earlier this month. The school officials told HuffPost Live that the proposed policy was “a misunderstanding.” They said “It had nothing to do with young ladies, young African-American ladies. It was really more so addressing young African-American men here at this school….We want to maintain a certain type of college prep culture here, and we just want the young men to be well-groomed.”
Leila Noelliste, creator and editor of Black Girl with Long Hair, told HuffPost Live that the problem lies with the idea that natural African-American hair is not automatically considered well-groomed. “It’s an issue black people face within the black community and outside, that our naturally occurring features are characterized as unruly, undisciplined, unkempt,”
As an afro puff wearer, the mother of an afro puff wearer, and the creator of the Afro Puff Girls, I was outraged. But beyond that, I want to go on record for the fact that I am in favor of unruly black girls. In fact, I hope I am raising one right now.
For the last couple of warm summer nights, my 3 ½ year old daughter has gone on a pajama strike. She gets her bath, puts on the jammies, but then when it’s time to go to sleep, she complains that she’s too hot and strips them off. Not my favorite move. Especially when she has a bit of a runny nose. I generally let her take them off, but then in the middle of the night, I sneak a shirt on to her after she’s asleep. The other night, however, she pulled the shirt back off, in her sleep. So I guess even her unconscious was committed to shirtlessness. Last night, however, she wanted to strip completely naked, even taking off the pull up. She’s potty trained, but nighttime accidents do happen, so she wears a pull up. This was a significant decision because we bed share with our daughter. If she wets the bed, she wets our bed. Her dad was opposed, but I figured it wasn’t worth the fight. We could just put the pull up back on after she fell asleep. Which we did. And she proceeded to pull it back off. In her sleep. See what I mean? Unruly.
But I had to go with my commitment to supporting her unruliness. I decided to take the slim risk of her wetting the bed, in favor of her getting to decide what to do with her own body. She’s black and female, and we don’t have the best historical track record of having body autonomy, integrity, and sovereignty. So I try to do whatever I can to support her personal freedom. Including facing my own anxiety about various risks, whether she’s climbing on something tall or going barefoot or sleeping naked. I’m pleased to report that she woke up, asked to go to the bathroom, and handled all her business in the appropriate locations.
Back to the issue in Ohio. As black people, our very unadulterated presence is considered unruly. Unless we invest in assimilation, we will often be perceived as confrontational. Black Girl with Long Hair notes that “afro-puffs are essentially the black version of the ponytail.”
And I had my own hair episode this week. Yesterday I had to go to traffic court, and I recall very intentionally pulling my dreadlocks back into a bun, and taking time so that none of the ends would show. This is 500% more effort than I put into doing my hair any other day, but I know that the white judge may see me differently if my unprocessed hair is not completely contained.
As a woman in my mid-40s, I can code switch between my more un-contained and authentic black self and my toned down black self, when interacting with societal institutions and conservative gatekeepers. By the way, things turned out well in traffic court.
This is not my most extreme use of this strategy. I once bought a straight wig when I was potentially in trouble with the authorities. (At the time I had a wild and zany short asymmetrical afro of various lengths). I put the wig on for the meeting and then took it off on the bus on the way home. I know who I am. The wig is a costume I can take on and off. But my daughter doesn’t yet understand these issues of power, racism, institutions, and context. She doesn’t yet understand the codes and know how to switch them. So until she does I’ll just be letting her run wild as much as possible—nappy hair and naked body—as she sees fit.